Although not a neo-con, as the term is commonly used now, I do recognize that the US has a distinct role to play in the world, at least for this period of our history, in helping maintain a stable world order. In a limited sense, it’s not a fool’s errand. The best example was the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein annexed neighboring Kuwait, and began massing his armies on the border of Saudi Arabia. Although I am no friend of the House of Saud, I sure didn’t want it replaced with Hussein’s dictatorship, and leaving Hussein on charge of the majority of Persian Gulf oil. There was a principle to be adhered to; you can’t just conquer other countries, strip them for parts, and steal their national resources so you can hold it hostage on the world market. The United States, acting through its sock puppet the UN (at least for that issue), assembled a coalition which included Syria, and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait. Establishing a cost for a country that tried to conquer it’s neighbors willy nilly helps keep that sort of that action extremely risky, not matter how militarily weak one’s neighbor is and as a result, it’s a relative rarity in the post World War II era.
There is another principle at stake now and the Obama administration is preparing to attack Syria based on it; you can’t use chemical weapons; particularly on civilians. There are not many taboos in warfare, but using chemical weapons would certainly be on that short list.
But in this case, there are competing interests and principles involved. Prohibiting the use of chemical weapons is a taboo for those countries that were involved in World War I. Those nations were horrified by what they had done on the battlefield and although almost all of them kept some manner of CW weapons in stock during the 20th century, they weren’t used and relatively few of the former World War I combatants have active stockpiles now. Even Hitler didn’t use them, although he had them.
But the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share those taboos. Certainly Saddam Hussein didn’t share them during the Iran-Iraq War, or when he gassed his own people at Halabja in 1988. And Bashar Assad doesn’t share them now.
So, if we are going to enforce as a norm, the idea that using chemical weapons against civilian populations is verboten, then we have to react. Although I can’t believe that was actually Obama’s plan. The reason we are attacking Syria is so Obama can feel butch. He made up that “red line” statement about chemical weapons thinking he would never have to pay up since at the time, all of the experts were saying that Assad had only weeks left.
So here we are 30 months into a Syrian civil war and the experts were wrong, as seems to be the case quite frequently, and now Obama is trying to make it look like his word means something.
But as I said, there are competing interests. Just like the Iran-Iraq War, in which Henry Kissinger said, “It’s a shame they can’t both lose,” there are no good guys in the Syrian conflict. There is a choice between an anti-American dictatorship that is a state supported sponsor of terrorism, or a fundamentalist Islamic regime that almost certainly will be a state sponsor of terrorism. So foreign policy of the old “realist” bent would be interested in keeping the war between our enemies going on as long as possible. The longer they are concerned with each other, the less they will be concerned with us. That was basically our strategy with Iran and Iraq during the 1980’s.
So which is more important? Leaving secular Baathists and Islamic fundamentalist to fight it out, or interfering and possibility helping the Islamic fundamentalists by inflicting damage to the Syrian Military?
Left out of most of this discussion is what is in the national security interests of the United States? To me, that has to be a key component of any US military intervention and I just don’t see it in this case.
Although I’m as opposed to the use of chemical weapons against civilians as the next Westerner, we let the Iraqi’s go at it against the Iranians for years and didn’t lose any sleep over it, and in this case, my inclination is to just get a good night’s sleep. Eventually, the conflict in Syria will be over, and an enemy of the United States will be in charge. I don’t see much advantage in hastening that day.